There was something fragile and romantically reticent about the empty room beyond the door. Outside, they all looked the same, with the same people living inside; jobs and paychecks and porches for smoking. Except this one was different—a living room without a stick of furniture. At one end there was a large sturdy table with a superb sewing machine, made before the internal parts were made of shitty Chinese plastic. Inside there was only metal hardware—something she took pride in. By the table there was no chair, only a large inflatable ball—for yoga, or exercise, or something. She bounced on it while knitting thick warm mittens that were never used on the California coast.
In the morning, after peeling the dead succulents from the potted garden on the porch and wishing happy Friday to the mailman, she lit two menthols, one after the other, and contemplated joining me in my traipse up the coast. The decision was menial, but she wouldn’t give me an answer the night before. She built the anticipation, making it seem significant, but we knew it wasn’t. Perhaps she knew that I didn’t particularly care about going north—it was an excuse to pass the fleeting hours torturing myself with her company before returning to New York. I sadistically wanted to spend the day biting my tongue; forcing myself to not ask the obviously necessary questions that most people ignore.
She told me about some strange skydiver who would arrive in two weeks. And as she told me, her cheeks trembled and a half-smile snuck out the corner of her mouth, so I asked for his name, and began plans to track him down and snuff him. Doubt was not something I dealt with easily, especially perched above Monterrey Bay, surrounded by the salt-bathed cypress trees and sun-charred hills. This was, undoubtedly, paradise, and in all the superficiality, I felt there was no room for ambivalence. But against my will, I was submerged in a deluge of philosophical quandary. Frankly, I never gave a shit about Descartes, precisely because of these situations. There was no God’s eye view. I thought—but I was not. The sour thoughts did not define me any more than they paralyzed me. My mind—my instrument of reason—was a cluttered mess of thought and act, dance and feel. Preparing to be empty, but willingly (and stupidly) guzzling misinterpreted signs of optimistic hope. I decided that the only thing that would make me feel better was for us to blaze past the ritzy Carmel crowd, with no money in our pockets, fueled by tobacco and leftover scotch from the night before, watching her hair curl like a snake out the driver’s window. She was Bowie’s rebel-rebel; live wire—I was calamity’s child.
I never asked her about Descartes—one of my few good decisions—but she mentioned that the night before her mind and body were thrust into irreconcilable oppositions, a typically terrible Cartesian puzzle. Did Descartes ever think of how these puzzles gained unprecedented levels of complexity with opiates and Lagavulin? Who knows. But surely, after being thoroughly soaked in it we faced the strange tensions that manifested in the mysteriously magical concoction. By the end, I was paralyzed with cold sweats pulsing up my back and squeezing my throat. I attempted to put words to the depths of the confusion rotting at the root of my stomach, but to no avail.
Neither of us slept. In the end, the 30 miles up the highway didn’t matter. The important decisions had already been made the night before, in the darkness, before the seals barked in the morning. Before we actually closed our eyes, and before the sun bled through the broken wilted blinds. And when we opened our eyes, our bodies were twisted. I thought it was divine intervention or hallucination. But to make sure, I slipped my arm under her pillow, slinking around to her right side where her bony fingers entwined with mine. As they fitfully wound together, I wondered if she was asleep. I wondered if she was dreaming that I was someone else. Probably, I thought, the supernatural salty Pacific winds had infected her brain, implanting the vigor of love, or lust, or need, for someone else. I silently begged her to open her eyes so she knew. And she blinked. “Did we sleep?” she asked, still clutching my hand. I ran my left thumb up her spine and she thrust the back of her neck into my chin. I still didn’t know if she knew it was me, but in a gentle touch, I gave her my heart through my mouth. And she lay there, motionless.
Our eyelids were shut for 49 minutes until we awoke to a strange drunk throwing shillings through the door. “Get the fuck out of here,” she told him, buying us one extra hour. The drunk went out for coffee and bagels. Who was he? What was this?—were the questions we should have asked, but didn’t. Instead, we burrowed under the sheets and distracted ourselves from the true essence of the moment. In this, we were like all Americans, though we would not have admitted it. We distracted ourselves, really, from the morning—the dreadful death knell of a strange and magical night. Instead of facing reality, we watched videos of winter in Finland.
I had stiff black coffee and she submerged hers with Ovaltine. Simultaneously, she brushed her teeth and did yoga peering over the bay, while I showered in her bath with no shower curtain. I offered to drive north, in my uncle’s borrowed car, but she insisted that we take her red Jeep with the Fleetwood Mac sticker, because she wanted to smoke. She put on bright pink shades like Janis Joplin, lifted her left foot onto the seat, and blasted Nina Simone. Deep down I felt quite paltry—a squarish academic with more brains than balls—next to the queens of the world. By the time we reached Carmel, she’d inhaled half a dozen cigarettes, each one of which I submerged in her moist paper tea cup that was strategically placed in a paper bag hanging off the gear shifter. I stamped these out with a perverse pleasure and stuck one in my pocket for good measure. Through Carmel we waved to the rich white families that knew we didn’t belong there and we gave sarcastic gestures of support to the dreadful tourists that gleefully snapped pictures of California’s first concentration camp.
At a thrift store off Cannery Row I bought two edited volumes for a dollar with long abandoned chapters by Friedrich Katz and John Womack. She passively mentioned the night and how she rarely had guests, then quickly—abruptly changing the subject—asked where the car was and began explaining her new audiobook about the global bird population decline, which we listened to on the ride home.
We fell back into the empty living room and there, like the sultan of audacity, she asked me about my deepest fears. Dying, I told her, like my father, with a gritty revolver to the chin, driven by emptiness into the end of life. Unshaken, as I knew she would be, she peeled open one of her many emotional scabs. Like a perfectly formed knot, with one pull she untied the patriarchal myths that scarred her for life. I could do nothing but offer words—empty ones like beauty and intelligence and wit and perfection. She was something—and I tried to concoct the magical decisive metaphor, but failed. She saw through me, down to my bones and pulsing organs. My smile and words didn’t mean anything. She had been fooled by those before. And today, I wonder what she saw rushing through my scarred veins. I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of her desolate room. Then, I kissed her right cheek, smelling the enchanting scent of her lavender shampoo that she told me not to waste on my ragged hair. And with an innocent hand on the side of her dress, I said goodbye and left.
Less than two hours later my stomach plummeted into a tornado of regret. I immediately felt the ulcers forming. Plunging back into that grim valley, down the Pacheco Pass, I considered ripping through oncoming traffic and speeding back to the coast. I didn’t know what I would do, but something needed to be done. I called and hung up. Then I called and she didn’t answer. I wrote a text and deleted it to not seem desperate. Then the impotence set in. I had a plane ticket to New York in eight days. My eyes glazed over, and I trudged on to my childhood home, where my father’s brains are still stained on the walls; where vacuity sustains the human shells that wither away among the acres of pistachios and cow shit. And I joined them, hesitantly embracing the regretful agony that I did less when I could have done more.
Matthew Ford is a PhD student studying Latin American History at Stony Brook University in New York. His writing has appeared in the Middle Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies, CounterPunch, Z Magazine, The New Verse News, and Flies, Cockroaches and Poets: The Journal of the Chicano Writers and Artists Association.